A great vocal recording can make or break a song. Think of any decades-old classic or your favorite song, and chances are that it’s the vocal that stands out in your memory.
In an ideal world, we would all be able to record vocal tracks in a state-of-the-art recording facility, with drawers full of expensive condenser and ribbon mics and racks and racks of high-end outboard gear. However, that’s not always the case, even among the pros.
The good news is that getting decent vocal recordings at home is entirely possible, even with modest gear. With the following tips and techniques, you too could produce killer vocal tracks, even if your home studio is a little more than a decent laptop to produce music on and a couple of mics.
7 Techniques & Tips For Getting Good Vocal Recordings
1) Use the right mics
Goes without saying that you need to invest in the right mics. Mics are the first important piece of equipment in the recording chain. Choosing the proper vocal mic is essential to getting a good, clear vocal printed onto your recording medium.
In most cases, you will want to record your vocal tracks with a good quality, large diaphragm condenser mic. Sure, great things have been done with dynamic mics. Singers such as Michael Jackson and Bono have been known to use relatively inexpensive dynamic mics on their most enduring works. In general however, large diaphragm condenser mics are better suited to capturing the full range of vocal nuances.
2) Get rid of reflections
Reflections are the bane of recording sessions. They can cause everything from phasing to delayed signals and a host of other anomalies. It’s hardly any wonder then that a considerable part of setting up a recording space involves dealing with reflections.
If your home studio is located in a spare bedroom or a basement, chances are that you don’t have much in the way of sound treatment. But it is essential to eliminate, or at least reduce reflections as much as possible if you hope to be able to record decent vocal tracks.
Proper sound treatment can be quite costly, and it is a fairly complex subject that is well beyond the scope of this article. But there is a lot you can do to reduce the worst of the reflections that are likely present in your recording space.
There are commercially-available isolation barriers that prevent reflections from the sides and behind the singer from being picked up. But one DIY technique is to simply suspend a thick blanket or similar dampening material around the mic for a quick and dirty solution.
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3) Get control over the levels
Unless you’re working with a professional singer that has years of recording experience, you will likely have to deal with widely, and sometime wildly varying volume levels. In an ideal scenario, the singer will know enough about proper mic and vocal technique to get a fairly consistent level range into the mic.
Unfortunately, not every singer will be able to produce a perfectly consistent level. It is therefore your job as the recording engineer to ensure that levels don’t get out of hand.
There are many ways where you could capture a consistent volume level when recording vocals. For one, you could just set up a pop filter at the proper distance from the mic, for instance. This will not only help reduce plosives (the ‘pop’ sound produced when singing “P” or “B” consonants).
However, while recording, experiment with miking distance. It’s common sense to say that the closer a singer is to mic, the more “boomy” the vocals will be, and hence, more “P” and “B” sounds will be prominent. Unless you want that “intimate” vocal sound, you may not need to record your singer so closely. The suggestion then is to record vocals at around 6 inches to 12 inches.
Finally, in some cases, you may have to ‘ride’ the input fader as the singer is laying down the vocal. Have your singer recorded by sections: during soft section, boost the input, and during recording takes of the louder section, turn down the fader. This very simple “trick” will allow you to be able to get a more consistent recording without the ‘pumping’ that sometimes results from compression.
4) Get rid of breath noise…within reason
In most cases, you will want to get rid of the breath noise that accompanies most vocal performances. They can be overly-loud and distracting, and they generally detract from the quality of the overall performance.
That being said, you don’t necessarily want to get rid of every single instance of breath noise. A short breath leading up to an impassioned phrase can add a bit of drama and realism, and make the performance sound more natural.
When deciding whether or not to get rid of a breath sound, use your artistic judgment. Unless it stands out too much or affects the performance adversely, it might be better to leave it in.
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5) Hold off on the effects until later
With so many wonderful effects available these days, it’s tempting to patch one or two–or more–in your session when recording vocals. But it’s generally good practice to track vocals dry and add effects later as necessary.
Remember that once effects are printed onto a track, it’s next to impossible to remove or even reduce them later on. It would therefore be best to get the raw vocal down on tape or hard disk, and then add effects during mixdown.
There are some exceptions to this rule of course. In some cases, you may want to pass the vocals through a compressor or a limiter in order to tame excessive peaks. Even so, you might want to consider proper mic placement instead, or riding the fader during recording, as described previously.
Check out this article on mixing with melodyne.
6) Practice makes perfect
All the fancy plug-ins and advanced recording techniques in the world won't take the place of practice. As much as possible, the singer should know the material down cold and be able to deliver a confident and convincing vocal performance even before you hit the ‘record’ button.
We’ve all seen the cinematic depictions of singers coming into the studio, hearing a few bars of music and laying down the vocal performance of his or her life. The reality is that such instances are exceedingly rare.
The best performances usually come from familiarity and an intimate relationship with the lyrics, melody, and theme. This can only come from plenty of practice.
With that in mind, make sure to also make plenty of recordings, with several take of each sections. That way you have good material for “choosing” among the best recorded sections, and trashing anything that’s not quite right.
See this article on 10 mixing mistakes to avoid.
7) Make sure your singer is comfortable
One of the most important things you can do to get a great vocal performance is making sure that the singer is comfortable during the recording session. This could mean anything from providing a comfortable and conducive recording environment to supplying drinks or food if necessary.
In many ways, the role of a producer or engineer encompasses a bit of psychology and coddling. In a typical home recording, you may not have the budget or inclination to deal with a diva, nor should you have to.
Nevertheless, it is part of your job to ensure that the singer is able to deliver the best performance that he or she is reasonably capable of. If that means setting the temperature just right, adjusting the lighting, or providing a selection of snacks, then that’s what you have to do.
BONUS TIP! The Vocal Doubling Technique
If you’re just recording yourself or just one singer, you can easily be your our backing singer, and even choir, by recording additional takes of different sections.
This is of course best for sections of a song where the music is “larger,” like during the chorus, vamping up to a climax, or after a drop. You can harmonize with yourself, or simply double your lines, panning your additional takes hard right and hard left, while your main vocals stay in the middle. It’s a fun way to add some theater to your music, so check it out!
At the end of the day, what you are trying to capture is emotion. You want the vocal to move and inspire the listener, and to evoke feelings. In the quest to achieve the perfect take, there is a risk of losing all the little imperfections that could make a vocal track so compelling and memorable.
Of course, you should always strive to get the very best vocal track you can, and to capture it perfectly. But if the choice is between getting a clinically perfect take and a living, breathing vocal dripping with honesty, emotion, and passion, the latter will win out every time.
Recording great vocal tracks is often equal parts art and science. While using the right equipment and proper techniques are essential, it is just as important to be guided by creativity and aesthetic considerations. By combining proper recording techniques with a sense of artistry and creativity, you too could have powerful and compelling vocal performance in your own productions.
Thanks for reading!
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